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The Man Behind the Pro-Voucher Movement in Utah

The latest campaign finance numbers are in for Utah's voucher referendum, which is on the ballot Tuesday, and both sides so far have spent a total of more than $7 million. That's more than what Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr. spent in 2004 to win his last gubernatorial race, according to a story today in the Salt Lake Tribune.

Not suprisingly, the National Education Association lived up to speculation that it would spend about $3 million on its campaign to defeat vouchers — making the NEA the biggest funding source for the anti-voucher movement. The referedum seeks to undo a law the legislature passed earlier this year that would give every public school student a voucher for private school tuition, ranging from $500 to $3,000, based on family income.

Most of the support for vouchers is coming from one source, too: Patrick Byrne, the CEO of the Internet shopping site Overstock.com, who's referred to as the "Warren Buffett of Utah." Byrne and his family have donated $2.6 million to the cause, according to media reports. He's not just giving money, either, but travelling the state, making appearances, and trying to persuade people that vouchers could help narrow the achievement gap between minorities and nonminorities and help catapult Utah to the front of the race for academic superiority.

Why is he investing such personal and political capital in this? I spent some time with Byrne while I was in Utah earlier this month reporting for an article on about the referedum. He's a down-to-earth guy (even with his Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford University) who says he's tired of teaching basic skills to his workers at his Utah-based company and tired of the U.S. continuing to fall behind other countries in the global economy.

Byrne, who has no children of his own, has helped open 19 schools named after his mother, Dorothy, in impoverished countries across the world, including Nepal. In fact, Overstock.com features something called Worldstock, which sells the products of artisans in many of the same impoverished countries where his schools are located. In part, he says he does this so kids can go to school and not be forced to work to help support their families.

Both his ventures overseas and in Utah seem to be about one thing: opportunities. He told me: "If you care about racial inequality, then you should care about the opportunities that vouchers bring."

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